Boris Johnson resigned as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party on Thursday, sparking a race to succeed him as prime minister after a frantic 48 hours in which dozens of people walked out of his scandal-battered government.
Johnson acknowledged that it was “clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister”.
In a speech outside 10 Downing Street, he said he would stay in office until his successor is found, but faced calls to leave immediately and for an interim leader to be appointed.
Conservative John Major, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said Johnson’s extended tenure, and the powers that still accompany it, were “reckless and may be unsustainable”.
The leadership election will take place in the coming months. The winner will replace Johnson at the party’s annual conference in early October.
But polls have suggested a majority of Britons are in favor of his immediate departure, amid claims Johnson only hopes to enjoy a wedding party at his government-funded country retreat.
Johnson’s tumultuous three years in office were defined by Brexit, the Covid pandemic and ongoing controversy over his reputation as a liar.
– ‘Best job’ – He said he was “sad… to give up the best job in the world”, justifying his fight to stay to fulfill the mandate he won in a Brexit-dominated general election in December 2019.
In the six-minute speech, watched by his few remaining Conservative allies and his wife Carrie, he pledged support for Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
Johnson reiterated his support in a subsequent call to President Volodymyr Zelensky, Downing Street said.
Zelensky said he and Ukraine would be sad to see him go, praising his “personal leadership” and “charisma.”
Defense Minister Ben Wallace and Rishi Sunak, whose departure as finance minister on Tuesday led to an exodus from the cabinet, were among the frontrunners, a YouGov poll of Conservative members suggested.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, another potential candidate, said Johnson had “made the right decision” by cutting short a trip to Indonesia for a G20 meeting.
“We need calm and unity now and continue to govern while a new leader is found,” he tweeted.
– Contenders: Even as he watched the exit, Johnson sought to steady the ship, making several appointments to replace departed Cabinet members.
Among them was Greg Clark, an archenemy who opposes Britain’s divorce from the European Union, which Johnson had championed.
The inexperienced Shailesh Vara has been put in charge of Northern Ireland, with the government locked in a battle with Brussels over post-Brexit trade rules for the tense territory.
Summoning the new cabinet after his resignation speech, Johnson confirmed his lame duck status by saying “major fiscal decisions should be left to the next prime minister,” according to Downing Street.
As of Wednesday night, Johnson was defiantly clinging to power despite a wave of more than 50 government resignations.
He sacked minister Michael Gove, and a Downing Street source described Johnson’s former Brexit right-hand man as a “snake” in the media.
But the departure Thursday morning of Education Minister Michelle Donelan and the call for the resignation of Finance Minister Nadhim Zahawi, who has only been in office for two days, tipped the scales.
– ‘Arrogant and delusional’ – Conservative parliamentarians also warned him of a new motion of censure.
Johnson triumphed in 2019 on a promise to “end Brexit” after Britain’s surprise referendum decision three years earlier. But for many, the populist leader who defies convention had overstayed his welcome.
The Conservative infighting erupted at a time when millions of Britons are grappling with the worst drop in living standards since the 1950s, fueled by soaring energy prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
Johnson’s popularity had already plummeted for a series of lockdown break parties in Downing Street, at which he became the first prime minister to receive a police ticket.
It’s about time, right? Seriously, I mean, have you ever met someone so arrogant, ignorant, delusional? Helen Dewdney, 53, who works in consumer rights, told AFP.
While Johnson oversaw a successful coronavirus vaccine campaign, the former journalist also oversaw one of Europe’s worst death tolls, nearly dying of Covid himself in April 2020.
“Boris Johnson’s legacy is the deaths of almost 200,000 Britons under his rule,” said Lobby Akinnola of the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
– After-dinner speeches – “While Johnson will go on to a life of writing newspaper columns and charging eye-watering amounts to give after-dinner speeches, families like mine who have been torn apart by his actions,” he said.
Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned on Tuesday night after Johnson apologized for his appointment in February of a senior Conservative MP to a prominent role in parliament.
Chris Pincher resigned as deputy whip chief last week following allegations that he groped two men while intoxicated.
Downing Street officials eventually admitted that Johnson knew of other allegations against Pincher in 2019, with many ministers backing down on having to defend the appointment.
Tony Travers, director of the LSE London think tank, said the party had once again shown its propensity to turn against unpopular leaders after earlier getting rid of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
“The truth is that the reason the Conservative Party is so enduring is that it gets rid of its leaders when it thinks they are hurting the party,” he told AFP.
“And this allows the party to start over with a new leader and say, ‘Look, we’re a completely different company.'”